The Stroad to Hell …

The Midlothian Turnpike in Chesterfield County: a classic stroad. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

Americans, asserts Charles Marohn in his book “Thoughts on Building Strong Towns,” do not understand the difference between streets and roads. That conceptual confusion has resulted in untold billions of dollars in bad investment as traffic engineers have melded the two in what Marohn and others have contemptuously term “stroads.”

I bring this up because I cannot imagine that any state suffers more from the affliction of stroads than Virginia does. Worse, I don’t see that anyone writing editorials, commentary or white papers in the Old Dominion who understands what we have done to ourselves. All I see is the relentless call to increase taxes so we can spend more money to “fix” the problem that we created through  carelessness and ignorance.

As Marohn explains:

Roads move people between places while streets provide a framework for capturing value within a place.

The value of a road is in the speed and efficiency that it provides for movement between places. Anything … that reduces the speed and efficiency of a road devalues that road. If we want to maximize the value of a road, we eliminate anything that reduces the speed and efficiency of travel.

The value of a street comes from its ability to support land use patterns that create a financial return. The street with the highest value is the one that creates the greatest amount of tax revenue with the least amount of public expense over multiple life cycles. If we want to maximize the value of a street, we design it in such a way that it supports an adjacent development pattern that is financially resilient, architecturally timeless and socially enduring.

Rather than maximizing the efficiency of streets and roads, we have combined their functions to the detriment of both. Stroads, designed to move traffic at 45 or so miles per hour, create the worst of both worlds. Rather than accommodating complete streets that allow for automobiles, transit, bikers and pedestrians, stroads focus on moving automobiles exclusively. In exchange for bumping up local speed limits 10 or 20 mph that save motorists a few fractions of a minute in driving time, stroads effectively banish other modes of transportation from the scene. In so doing, as I noted in a previous post (“Wealth-Destroying Streets“), they destroy property values and dampen tax revenues.

At the same time, we have ruined state highways across the Old Dominion by allowing them to evolve into commercial streets cluttered with driveways, cut-throughs and stop lights. Thus, to pick an example frequently mentioned on this blog, government officials in Charlottesville and Albemarle County enacted policies over the past three or four decades that gradually converted U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville from a state highway into a local street that now requires a $244 million bypass to circumvent. Of course, local government officials have done the same thing in Danville, Lynchburg, Warrenton, Gainesville and even in rural counties in between. State officials have awakened to the need for “access management” but they have done so way too late in the game — the damage is irreparable. Virginia does not have the money to fix its ruined highways.

One of the dangers of the Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase is that it will absolve transportation policy makers of the need to return to first principles. Rather than re-think how we invest our transportation dollars, we will continue to degrade more highways into stroads and build more stroads that degrade property values. We will continue merrily upon our wealth-destroying ways until the money runs out.

35 Responses to The Stroad to Hell …

  1. Jim say: “To pick an example frequently mentioned on this blog, government officials in Charlottesville and Albemarle County enacted policies over the past three or four decades that gradually converted U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville from a state highway into a local street that now requires a $244 million bypass to circumvent.”

    Actually, our planners have been brewing up this C’ville 29 by pass problem since 1963. I watched that problem accrue almost daily from 1963 to 1969 – from the first KFC to ARBY’s to K Mart, etc. etc. What was happening and where it would all lead was plain to untutored eyes even then 50 years ago.

    So 50 years later, the problem still daily grows. And we are no closer to fixing it today than we were in 1963. This difference is that the fix today has become far more difficult, far more drastic, and far harder to accomplish.

    Now, however, there’s an added complication. As C’ville’s Rt 29 congestion grows daily, our resources to fix it diminish daily. It’s become a metaphor for a whole host of problems that loom up ever higher before us. Ones we ignore or patch over in absurdly expensive ways that solve nothing, only delay the inevitable complete failure whose only solution is abandonment.

    What’s this tell us about our government? About ourselves, our future?

  2. Actually one of the best, most succinct posts by the esteemed Mr. Bacon who does good work when he steps away from the ideological stuff.

    this problem is much, much more prevalent with State DOTs that handle all roads verses states where the localities take responsibility – as they do in Va with every city/town and 2 counties.

    Access management at the local level is mandatory if you want to protect the investment in roads and the State has a big dog in this hunt with state level roads – called “primary” roads in Va but any road that is US or Virginia “signed” (not a 600 series) is a road built with state taxpayers money and should have it’s utility protected and not allowed to be degraded so that bypasses have to be built.

    for 29 – not only Lynchburg and Charlottesville but also NoVa … 29 DID at one time exist as a state primary through NoVa also.

    across Virginia – even with cities and towns the primary state/fed “signed” road was co-opted for local development. Look at US 1… from the Va line at Md to the Va line at NC.

    but one bypass is enough or should be and therein lies the problem with Cville. no bypass, unlike Lynchburg which had two and NoVa which had none per se either unless we count the beltway.

    the problem has always been – how do we connect the cities but allow those destined for cities further way to traverse the intermediate cities?

    We “thought” we fixed this problem with beltways, eh? ha ha ha.

    cities not only co-opt bypasses – they also co-opt beltways and interstates.

    NoVa is the mother of all in this regard – consuming every inch of road infrastructure – even the interstates – to the point that east coast travelers trying to get from Florida to New York are inflicted with one of the worst traffic nightmares – in the entire country – but who does the most whining about it? NoVa…right?

    Cville is no different. Cville thinks that US29 – a signed US highway is a Charlottesville “asset” , not a US or Va asset.

    they are by no means unique in this regard.

  3. We “thought” we fixed this problem with beltways, eh? ha ha ha. cities not only co-opt bypasses – they also co-opt beltways and interstates. NoVa is the mother of all in this regard – consuming every inch of road infrastructure – even the interstates – to the point that east coast travelers trying to get from Florida to New York are inflicted with one of the worst traffic nightmares – in the entire country – but who does the most whining about it? NoVa…right?”

    Truer words have never been written.

    Of course Tyson’s is the poster child for this theft of the right of US citizens to interstate travel, including reasonable use of interstate roads that they pay for through the federal government’s funding and maintenance.

    Tyson’s has been stealing these public right for decades. There should be a law preventing this. I assume there is not an effective one, or if there is one (control of access for example), it was given away long ago, and cannot now be clawed back.

    In any case, future growth decisions on Tyson’s will have major new impacts to such interstate travel and on whether that ongoing theft will continue endlessly into the future. Or whether it will be slowly abated, so as to restore to interstate travelers what should not have been stolen from them in the first place. So what’s the answer?

    To date, on Fairfax county websites, I see a lot of talk about what goes on inside Tysons, how all this will supposedly improve livability there. But I see very little about how all this growth will impact what goes on outside it. And I see very little information or analysis that allows interested parties to make their own judgements as to likely future “off site” impacts.

    One suspects someone’s trying to hide monster elephants in the room.

  4. Reading this column and these comments is like watching The Dead Poets Society. Lots of words and pentameter, no facts or numbers.

    Here are a few facts:

    1. There is a reasonable correlation between the size of a metropolitan area and its level of traffic congestion.

    2. NoVa and Hampton Roads both have considerably worse congestion than their metropolitan sizes would suggest.

    3. Virginia’s gas tax has been frozen in cents per gallon for 27 years.

    4. The only state with a gas tax that has been frozen longer than Virginia is Alaska.

    5. Alaska has so much money coming in from resource exploration it has neither a personal income tax nor a state sales tax.

    OK, now you guys try to use facts to back up your theories.

    For example:

    “I bring this up because I cannot imagine that any state suffers more from the affliction of stroads than Virginia does.”.

    “this problem is much, much more prevalent with State DOTs that handle all roads verses states where the localities take responsibility – “.

    “As C’ville’s Rt 29 congestion grows daily, our resources to fix it diminish daily.”

    “Virginia does not have the money to fix its ruined highways.”.

    “Tyson’s has been stealing these public right for decades.”.

    So, let’s review. My contention is that the primary cause of Virginia’s transportation woes is the lack of funding perpetrated by a frozen gas tax. I have facts that relate Virginia’s gas tax to the tax levied in other states (including facts like North Carolina’s gas tax being twice that of Virginia). You have blather and hyperbole without any quantification.

    • one argument that would convince me from DJ is for given metro areas – metrics such as road miles per capita… in other words, demonstrate that NoVa has less infrastructure as a result of the frozen gas tax.

      how about it DJ?

      • It’s not incumbent on me to prove that Virginia’s transportation revenue approach is deficient. I have quantified that. It’s incumbent on you to quantify your arguments.

        • DJ – I’ve been through most every Metro area in the country – not all – but many and I’m not sure I see much difference in the amount of asphalt compared to NoVa.

          I realize that’s purely anecdotal but perhaps I’ll do a cursory search to look for highway miles per capita or some such.

          by the way – at some point since 1986 – .5% of the sales tax was voted for highways and that’s about 10 cents on a per gallon basis and that was done in 2002 I believe. 1/2% of the sales tax is 1/2 billion additional in funding.

  5. Well.. Arlington is not without dirty hands also :

    http://goo.gl/maps/eWZNB

    I think virtually every place in Va treated US highways as owned by them
    and whose use was determined by them.

    Cville, in that regard, did nothing much different.

  6. Yes, Don, the gas tax is inadequate and Virginia needs to raise more revenue. Nobody on this blog disagrees with you. The question is, is a lack of revenue the *only* thing that ails Virginia’s transportation system? If we do raise more revenue, who pays? And do we have mechanisms in place to ensure that the money is well spent?

    You don’t seem to care about those follow-up questions. In that regard, you remind me of a junkie trying to get his next fix. Just give me the stuff, man. I don’t care ’bout nothin’ else right now!

    • I am asking you and others to try to quantify your arguments. If you (or someone else) believes that Northern Virginia has made a “stroad” out of the Beltway then use Google Maps and count the intersections per mile on the Beltway in NoVa vs 295 around Richmond for example. Getting some evidence to back up your assertions isn’t that hard. Failing to gather that evidence lessens the impact of your arguments.

  7. Fact? You can’t drive the Beltway half the time around Tysons. Haven’t been able to for years. Fact? Govs. been wasting money like drunken sailors, with a whole lot of folks getting rich, on fixes that never work. Fact? Fairfax wants to double density in Tysons, doubling office jobs. And likely will get away with it, given Virginia law. Should we give these people more money to spend and waste much like before? Folks need to wake up to what’s going on.

    • Seriously?

      I drive the Beltway around Tyson’s. You claim as a fact that, “You can’t drive the Beltway half the time around Tyson’s.”. Reed, that’s not a fact. It’s a clear error. You can always drive the Beltway around Tyson’s – it’s just a matter of how fast.

      You ask whether “we” should give “these people” more money. Who is “we”? How would the transportation systme in Fairfax County look if all of the state taxes collected in Fairfax County were spent in Fairfax County?

      You seem to have fallen into that bad space where the money earned by people is the property of the government rather than the people who earned the money. So, “we” becomes the government deciding whether the people who earned the money, “these people”, should get any money back.

  8. Had Virginia indexed the gas tax in 1986, we would have traffic congestion that is comparable to what we have today. We have more roads, but in places where they would do little good. The system is totally corrupt, and crony capitalism rules.

    Case in point, the North-South Corridor of Significance, a/k/a the Outer Beltway. It’s been desired by landowners in Prince William and Loudoun Counties for years and rejected by local governments for just as long. The Loudoun, Clarke and Fauquier County BoS have each passed resolutions opposing it because other projects need funds more and the demand is not there. The OB would likely run through much of the PW rural area designated for 10 acre lots and through a transition area from rural west Loudoun to suburban east Loudoun. The goal is to get taxpayers to build the road and then the landowners can lobby to change the zoning. Crony capitalism.

    The state of Maryland and Montgomery County both oppose any new Potomac River bridge connection with the OB.

    The OB does not connect with Dulles Airport. Traffic would need to travel on Rte 50, I-66, the Greenway or Route 7 to get to Dulles. Or they’d need to build a new road. None of the airfreight companies are involved in lobbying for the OB. Increased airfreight is just smoke to cover the landowners who want the taxpayer-funded road. Also, VDOT data show the OB would provide no traffic congestion relief as the bulk of traffic is east-west in direction.

    Had Virginia indexed the gas tax, we’d likely have the OB in Virginia and close to the same amount of traffic congestion. The funding and approval process is corrupt. Unless and until those processes are reformed and crony capitalism stopped, we will pay more, spend more, and see virtually nothing in return. We have a better and growing stream of revenue for transportation, but achieving results with today’s process is like p#^^ing into a hurricane.

    • Examples don’t prove trends. If I cited the average height of the Chicago Bulls I might claim that all Americans are unbelievably tall. Of course that would be a statistical error caused by failing to understand sample size and variability.

      You have no Earthly idea whether the outer beltway would have been built if the gas tax had been competently indexed instead of incompetently frozen. As for the “landowners” in Prince William County – I’ve read many, many essays by citizens of that county opposing the outer beltway.

      You cite roads that haven’t been built as an argument against competent transportation financing. You seem to forget roads that have been built like Rt 28, extending I66 through Arlington County, etc. I honestly can’t think of a road in Northern Virginia that was built in the last 30 years that hasn’t reduced congestion. Where is the Pocohontas Parkway of NoVa?

  9. Yes those darn roads are the problem. Why doesn’t the state just bulldoze down everything around a road and force business to build on a street? We could get rid of whole towns, but then those folks might re-settle to someplace like NoVa.

    • that’s the way 46 other states do it Darrell.. not the bulldozing but the state roads belong to the state and the locality has to take care of their local roads and use them for their development. the purpose of the state road is to convey traffic throughout the state. When you damage that.. you damage the functional utility of the state system – as well as the benefit the locality might derive from it.

    • Perfect solution, Darrell! The nuke subs before and now this! You’re the modern day Lord Root of the Matter. And your bulldozer idea is lots cheaper and efficient than more of what’s been going on for 60 years at the least.

    • Darrell – I am guessing that you are one of those weirdos who actually gets up every morning, drives to work, earns a salary, pays taxes and then drives home. You figure that you’re not getting government services equal to 35%, 40%, 45%, 50%, 55%, whatever of the salary you lose in taxes. You only have one big request of government – decent roads so you can get to and from work. Meanwhile, the basement dwellers want you to keep paying those taxes but not get decent roads. So what if it takes you an hour to go 10 miles? Just shut up, enter the traffic jam and keep paying for the takers.

  10. Yeah but you would be taking out a bunch of towns cuz those roads are called Main Street.

    • No, Darrell, you said: “Why doesn’t the state just bulldoze down everything around a “road” and force business to build on a “street”?” It’s brilliant.

      The roads run between the towns. They’re principal problem. The streets, including main streets, are in towns – we just slow them down, open them up, let the work for everybody, so their money making, society building, fun again streets, liberated from the speed wheel tyrants racing through town.

      But we bulldoze the rest, the litter cluttering roadsides outside towns. Or simply seal off their curb cuts, cutting loose what’s behind them to fend for themselves. And get fancy if need be. Help locals work out their own solutions. Let them move their litter to clusters around centralized off site access points, let them transfer densities, set up funds to help – but bulldoze.

      That takes our roads back so they work for all doing what they’re were built to do in the first place, not for just a few who spoil them for everyone else.

  11. I’m not in favor of bulldozing but I do favor recognizing what we’ve done and how it has effected our transportation system – AND our “places”.

    businesses have always wanted to be on the “main road”. It’s perfectly understandable and city fathers are often the same businessmen and unless the state DOD defends the road from being degraded, by using strict access management.. encroachment will result and it’s been common in the past and it’s common now at the interchanges of interstates and if the FHWA allowed it you can bet those businesses would be on the interstates themselves.

    what’s interesting to me is that NOW, VDOT is going back and backfitting access management – closing cross-overs, lengthening the left turn lanes and also the time delay for left turns and cross-street flows. They are also “encouraging” these communities to build parallel lanes for local traffic and intra-parcel connections between commercial businesses (which I always thought was DUMB, NOT to do anyhow. How stupid is it to have dozens of curb cuts -one for each business on a road that was originally built to connect cities for travelers?

    what this goes to show you is that it’s the LOCALITIES that will screw up the road system and it’s up to the state to keep them from doing it.

    how’s that for a “top down” solution?

    • You are quite right, Larry, and well said too.

      Now it’s time to shame all concerned, and its time to change this culture that has inflicted so much damage, all of it with our tacit, if not outright, consent. We’ll are all to blame. And now we’ve all run out of excuses, just like those who “door” bikers, and laugh about it, or use it for cheap tawdry political advantage. For those, and for us, the jig should be up. And people should be called out for it. That’s why the C’ville by pass should no longer by treated as business as usual. It’s an abomination. No more lipstick on PIGS.

      • Reed – I keep thinking this is at least somewhat rooted in the idea that only Va, NC, Texas and Alaska have the DOT in charge of all roads and the rest of the states requires the localities to be responsible for local/regional roads.

        But that’s not the whole story either because cities/towns both in Va and these other states and all other states have traditionally grown up about signed US/State roads and long ago co-opted them for their “place”.

        and as Darrell points out – there is really no practical way to “undo” it because in many if not most of these “places” – the “place” won out over the road.

        and if you go back and re-read what Marohn, what I’m hearing him say is these roads “belong” to the “place” AND while not overtly doing so, in in effect arguing against access management by the state to claw back the original transportation utility.

        he’s essentially advocating bypasses… i.e. give the road to the “place”.

        • Nothing has to be wrong with a fast road to the next town that on arrival merges into that town’s streets, passing through the town, then exits to become a through road again, headed for the next down.

          But, like you say, towns grow and pressures change. Ideal situations likely become more difficult to control and maintain for best advantage. A by-pass done right in a timely fashion often is good solution.

          Top down versus local bottom up? These issues often go round and round. It all depends on people, their habits, intelligence, ethics, competence, awareness, character, and the systems under which they go about their daily tasks. All these qualities ebb and flow among time, ages, people, cultures. 5th BC century Athens, 1st century BC Rome, Renaissance Florence, Nazi Berlin come to mind. People living, breathing, walking around at the time, make the difference.

          Thus, at bottom, Marohn says that today’s highway engineers where he operates right now by and large stink – they’re mostly a huge embarrassment to any profession worthy of the name. Frankly, I would tend to agree with him generally, with the caveat that such a harse judgement extends to all of us citizens as well. We stand aside and let it happen, become willing participants in it. I suggest we need a culture change to include an total overall of many our professions, their methods and ethics.

          • I dunno Reed. .. if you got 10, 20 towns ..to go through….

            isn’t that why the interstates were created?

          • reed fawell III

            Surely by now you’ve come to know, Larry, that I am not talking about Interstate Highways here.

          • re: surely by now…

            hard to “read” you sometimes Reed but one of the big problems with the US road system that helped to motivate the IHS was the fact that if one needed to make a regional or national trip – it required going through countless cities… and that was deemed not a good thing for people nor commerce nor military defense.

            are you with me?

  12. Well let me know when you get done bulldozing towns. I gotta new job for ya in Va. Beach. Knock down everything east of Atlantic Ave. except the ‘boardwalk’.

    • Looks pretty ugly, that stretch along in there. Ms. Everett’s school still far back off the beach back in Bay Colony, next to the golf course, I wonder?

    • Looks pretty ugly, that stretch along in there. Ms. Everett’s school still far off behind the beach back in Bay Colony, next to the golf course, I wonder?

  13. no knocking down towns but maybe not building many more bypasses either.

    that might be a pipe dream also, eh?

  14. Larry asks above “hard to “read” you sometimes Reed but one of the big problems with the US road system that helped to motivate the IHS was the fact that if one needed to make a regional or national trip – it required going through countless cities… and that was deemed not a good thing for people nor commerce nor military defense. Are you with me.”

    No, Larry, I am miles ahead of you. (translated: been there done that.)

  15. what does that mean Reed with respect to the need for the interstate highway system to correct those deficiencies?

    was the IHS a mistake in your view or needed?

  16. Interstate Highways are powerful stimulants to growth and prosperity.

    But, like all powerful stimulants devised by man, highways can far too easily be misused then abused by those who hijack those highways for their own private purposes and thus twist the original function of those highways out of shape, with monstrous consequences causing irrevocable harm.

    Same holds true for intrastate and local roads. Marohn’s principals are sound. But Coca to Cocaine is a pretty short trip if bad habits intervene.

  17. “I drive the Beltway around Tyson’s. You claim as a fact that, “You can’t drive the Beltway half the time around Tyson’s.”. Reed, that’s not a fact. It’s a clear error. You can always drive the Beltway around Tyson’s – it’s just a matter of how fast.”

    This is what passes for argument.. Really? This is pettifoggery.

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